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03 April 2024

Professor Thomas Sears (1928-2024)

Tribute to Thomas Sears, Honorary Visiting Professor of Neurophysiology at IoPPN, who died on 19 February 2024. Professor Sears' work in nerve conduction changed the field of multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and spinal cord injury.

Thomas Sears

Thomas Sears was an Honorary Visiting Professor of Neurophysiology at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience since 2003. Upon his retirement from University College London in 1993, he spent the last thirty years sharing his expertise as an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the United Medical and Dental Schools of Guy's and St Thomas' Hospitals (now The GKT School of Medical Education; 1993-2003) and as Visiting Professor in Wolfson SPaRC (Sensory, Pain and Regeneration Centre; IoPPN; since 2003).

Professor Sears greatly contributed to two independent fields of study, the nervous control of breathing and spinal cord physiology. His pioneering work in nerve conduction changed the field of multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and spinal cord injury.

Tom was a genuine, generous, kind, and brilliant man. He was also an absolute fount of knowledge and liked nothing more than to talk science, to teach and train, and talk about his past work and collaborations. We were very lucky to have him in the department for so long – we celebrated his 90th birthday here and he gave a special impromptu speech at our SPaRC spring party in 2023. He was still attending our departmental seminars and asking thought-provoking questions up until last year.

Professor Elizabeth Bradbury, Co-Head of the Wolfson SPaRC

Professor Sears’ passion for science started in his first job as a laboratory assistant at the Wellcome Physiological Research Laboratory. For his national service, he served as R.A.F. Radar Technician. After the war, he completed his undergraduate studies at University College London.

He was an Assistant Lecturer at University College London (1952-1953) and a physiologist for the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases (1953-1956) before he became a lecturer at the Institute of Neurology (now part of University College London) in 1956. He joined the Australian National University as a Visiting Wellcome Research Fellow in 1961, where he decided to do his PhD with Sir John Eccles, FRS who later became a Nobel Laureate.

He returned to the UK in 1963 to the Institute of Neurology as a Senior Lecturer and progressed to become a Professor of Neurophysiology in 1973. He was crucial in setting the direction of the Sobell Department of Neurophysiology (Institute of Neurology) as an early centre for translational research.

I first met Tom in 1983 when I took up my first postdoc position at the Institute of Neurology. I had the privilege to collaborate and publish a key paper for my career in Nature with him in 1991. A delight in taking on the role of director for the Wolfson CARD in 2003 was finding out that in retirement Tom had “joined” the Steve McMahon group as a Visiting Professor. His contributions to the Wolfson over the following 20 years were legendary - as well as serving as a mentor to many staff members, he religiously asked the most insightful questions at each and every seminar. He will be sorely missed.

Professor Patrick Doherty, Emeritus Professor at the Wolfson SPaRC
Thomas Sears_spring party speech_2023

His expertise is recognised internationally. After officially retiring in 1993, he accepted invitations as a visiting professor in Japan, Germany, Ireland, and the UK. In 1977, he was bestowed the title Docteur Honoris Causa from Aix-Marseille Université for eminent services given to science.

His contribution to science was evident in his record of publications. He published papers across 6 decades, including 12 Nature publications (one in 1963 where he was the sole author). As recently as 2023, he co-authored a study on muscle nociceptors in the cat which was presented at the Physiological Society at King’s.

Tom and I met in 2000 when he relocated to the Wolfson, joining Steve McMahon’s group, in which I was a research associate. Later, in 2005, we shared an office as well as adjacent laboratory space. Tom continued to actively pursue his research with experiments on a weekly basis, right up until the COVID lockdown. During that time, he made himself and his extraordinary base of knowledge available to the countless young scientists who were lucky enough to stray into his orbit for a while. He would delight in suggesting improvements to experiments, leading colleagues on a fascinating trip down memory lane, into the archives of physiology. As well as a great mentor and personal friend, he was the most social, affable, and cerebral and collegiate of gentlemen.

Dr Martyn Jones, Visiting Research Fellow at the Wolfson SPaRC

Professor Sears joined the Wolfson SPaRC in 2003 when the centre opened (then known as the Wolfson Centre for Age-Related Diseases). As a Visiting Professor, he performed in-vivo neurophysiology experiments in the lab and collaborated with various centre members.

The thoughts and deepest sympathies of the IoPPN community are with Professor Sears’ family, colleagues, collaborators, and friends.

Professor Sears at the Wolfson SPaRC spring party in2023
Professor Sears at the Wolfson SPaRC spring party in2023